President Barack Obama said the U.S. won’t hesitate to use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, while asserting there is still time for diplomacy and sanctions to work.
A nuclear-armed Iran threatens the security of the U.S. as well as Israel and would trigger an arms race in the region, Obama said in Washington to a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the biggest pro-Israel organization in the U.S. He said international pressure including economic sanctions is isolating and dividing the Iranian leadership.
“Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said. “And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Whether and when to use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program has replaced the Israel-Palestinian peace process as the dominant issue in Israel-U.S. relations. Obama’s speech came on the eve of White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also will address Aipac. In his 34-minute speech, Obama set out no so-called “red line” that if crossed by Iran would trigger a U.S. attack.
Netanyahu said he was gratified to hear Obama reiterate his position that Iran must not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon and that the option of using military force remains.
“I appreciated that he made clear that when it comes to a nuclear-armed Iran containment is not an option,” Netanyahu said in Ottawa before leaving for Washington.
The Israeli leader also cited Obama’s affirmation that Israel has the right to act on its own if needed.
“I very much appreciated the fact that he said Israel has the right to defend itself by itself against any threat,” he said.
Obama’s relationship with Israel and the threat posed by Iran has emerged in the U.S. presidential campaign. Three Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to deliver messages to the Aipac conference.
Obama said all parties should consider the “weightiness of these issues” and the stakes for both the U.S. and Israel. He warned that the approach in dealing with Iran must be deliberate.
‘Loose Talk of War’
“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Obama said. “Such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.”
Since the start of October, crude oil has risen 37 percent. Oil futures for April delivery were $106.70 a barrel March 2 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent oil may rise to $150 a barrel this year if diplomatic relations between Iran and the west worsen, Barclays Plc forecast in a March 1 report.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, addressing Aipac this morning, said there is no disagreement between Israel and the U.S. on the goal of stopping Iran’s from building nuclear arms.
“Our message is clear: Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon,” Peres said.
Obama, who also met with Peres after they spoke, told Aipac he will award Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, later this year.
Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical research.
The U.S. and the European Union tightened economic sanctions following a Nov. 8, 2011, report by United Nations inspectors that Iran’s nuclear research program may include pursuing the capability to build a nuclear weapon. As a result, Obama said, Iran is isolated and its economy ground to almost a halt last year.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Washington-based policy research group Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the only audience that counts for Obama’s message that he won’t tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran is Netanyahu and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“It is now up to him to back up his words with meaningful action that sends a message to Jerusalem and Tehran about the strength of his resolve,” said Dubowitz, who has advised the administration and members of Congress on sanctions. Those actions, he said, include crippling sanctions, support for the Iranian opposition and preparations for military action.
“Overall it was a very good speech,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Israel’s Channel 2 television. “The point that we have to pay particular attention to is that here, Obama has declared ownership; Iran is an American problem, and we won’t allow it to go nuclear.”
The Iranians, he said, “need to pay very close attention to what was said here.”
Aipac will also hear from Republican candidates including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, all of whom have accused Obama of failing to give Israel sufficient support. Obama won in 2008 with 78 percent support from Jewish voters, according to national exit polls.
Campaigning near Atlanta before the next round of primary contests on March 6, Romney said Obama has failed to impose sufficiently harsh sanctions against Iran or make clear that Iran having a nuclear weapon is “unacceptable to America.”
“I understand he just gave an address today talking about all the great things he’s done to provide greater peace and reduce the threat from Iran,” Romney told more than 1,000 voters in Snellville, Georgia. “That hasn’t happened.”
Without specifically citing critics, Obama reaffirmed his support for Israel and listed steps his administration has taken to bolster Israel’s defense and defend its ally.
“There should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” Obama said. Political opponents who attack his policies are “not backed up by the facts,” he said.